Protein is a vital ingredient for a healthy body.
It is needed for growth and maintenance of tissues, repair of damaged cells, a well-functioning immune system, and increased metabolic rate. It helps to create a feeling of wellness in the body. 1
The Recommended Daily Allowance for protein for the average person is 0.36g of protein per pound of body weight (World Health Organization, 2002). 2
Under normal circumstances, your body breaks down the same amount of protein that it uses to build and repair tissues. Other times, it breaks down more protein than it can create, thus increasing your body’s needs. This generally happens during illness, pregnancy, or whilst you’re recovering from injury or surgery. 3
Athletes and those who exercise regularly will also need to consume higher quantities of protein. Experts recommend an intake of up to 0.8g of protein per pound of body weight. 4
So, how can you ensure you get all the protein you need?
Some food such as eggs, meat, dairy, leafy green vegetables, and legumes are great sources of protein. 5
However, many people lack the time and resources to prepare and measure meals to get their dietary protein. This is why many choose to reach for their favorite protein bar.
Protein bars are a convenient source of protein. But are they a healthy option?
In this article, we review whether protein bars are healthy, what benefits they offer, and how to incorporate them into a healthy diet.
Protein bars can provide you with several key nutrients
The nutrient composition of protein bars can differ significantly between brands — and even between flavors. This is largely due to their varying ingredients.
Protein bars can contain anywhere between 7 and 30g of protein per serving, which can go a long way towards reaching your daily protein goals.
We’ve mentioned the health benefits of protein, but did you know that a protein bar also contains different levels of other macronutrients and vitamins?
The average protein bar contains 5–10 grams of fat, 25–35 grams of carbs, and 5–10 grams of fiber.
Carbohydrates are an important part of your daily diet. They give your body the fuel it needs to function properly. Your body turns carbohydrates to glucose, once ingested, which can be used straight away for energy or stored in cells for later use. When you work out your body’s glucose stores are depleted and need to be replenished. According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, carbohydrates should make up 45 – 65% of your total caloric intake. 6 Protein bars can provide your body with these much needed nutrients at any time of the day.
Fats are important to provide your body with necessary insulation, the absorption of nutrients, and protection of vital organs. Fats are a source of fatty acids which the body cannot make itself so they need to be eaten each day. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that 20 to 35 percent of your daily calories come from fats. 7 Protein bars can provide your body with both saturated and unsaturated fats needed to function properly.
In addition to offering protein and carbs, many protein bars are a good source of micronutrients, such as calcium, B vitamins, potassium, and iron.
How to choose your healthy protein bar
Know your own goals
The best bar for you to choose will depend on your own health goals. If you frequently train with weights or run long distances, you will want a protein bar with a higher carb to protein ratio. If you are looking to lose weight, you will probably be more interested in a high protein and high fiber bar to help keep you full. If you are choosing to replace meals with a protein bar you will need a higher calorie bar with added vitamins and minerals.
Get at least one serving of protein
If you are going to eat a protein bar, try to get the most benefits from it by choosing one that contains over 7g of protein. This will help you to reach your RDA for protein and will provide some of the health benefits from protein in one serving.
Look for a high quality protein source
Prioritize protein bars that source their protein from high quality isolates and concentrates (such as grass-fed whey protein) as well as whole food ingredients (like nuts or antibiotic-free meat).
Simple ingredients that are easy to understand
Look for natural ingredients such as nut butter, rolled oats, and dates, that offer lots of health benefits.
High fiber content
Aim for 3 grams or more of fiber per serving to feel fuller for longer and aid your digestion. Fiber has also been shown to help reduce belly fat. 8
Low saturated fat
When looking for a healthy protein bar, try to find one that is high in unsaturated fats which promote a healthy heart. You can find these in nuts, seeds, and nut butters. Saturated fat is fine in moderation but should be less than unsaturated fats. Try to avoid trans-fats where possible.
The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that the maximum amount of added sugars you should eat in a day are 37.5 grams for men and 25 grams for women. 9 So, to avoid going over your daily allowance look for bars that contain less than half your daily sugar allowance.
1 Alberts B, Johnson A, Lewis J, et al. Molecular Biology of the Cell. 4th edition. New York: Garland Science; 2002. Analyzing Protein Structure and Function. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK26820/
2 Joint WHO/FAO/UNU Expert Consultation. Protein and amino acid requirements in human nutrition. World Health Organ Tech Rep Ser. 2007;(935):. https://www.who.int/nutrition/publications/nutrientrequirements/WHO_TRS_935/en/
3 Kominiarek MA, Rajan P. Nutrition Recommendations in Pregnancy and Lactation. Med Clin North Am. 2016;100(6):1199-1215. doi:10.1016/j.mcna.2016.06.004
4 Phillips SM, Van Loon LJ. Dietary protein for athletes: from requirements to optimum adaptation. J Sports Sci. 2011;29 Suppl 1:S29-S38. doi:10.1080/02640414.2011.619204
5 Górska-Warsewicz H, Laskowski W, Kulykovets O, Kudlińska-Chylak A, Czeczotko M, Rejman K. Food Products as Sources of Protein and Amino Acids-The Case of Poland. Nutrients. 2018;10(12):1977. Published 2018 Dec 13. doi:10.3390/nu10121977
6 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture. 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 8th Edition. December 2015. Available at http://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines/.
7 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture. 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 8th Edition. December 2015. Available at http://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines/.
8 Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. (2011, June 27). Soluble fiber strikes a blow to belly fat. ScienceDaily. Retrieved May 26, 2020 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/06/110627123032.htm
9 Johnson RK, Appel LJ, Brands M, et al. Dietary sugars intake and cardiovascular health: a scientific statement from the American Heart Association. Circulation. 2009;120(11):1011‐1020. doi:10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.109.192627